The Old Old Earth

In 1517, the Republic of Venice rebuilt the fortifications protecting the city of Verona. During the construction, strange rocks came to light, looking eerily like seashells and crabs. People had long puzzled over fossils, but for some reason this new discovery left the people of Verona especially intrigued. Perhaps it was the fact that crabs and seashells live in the ocean, which was sixty miles from the city.

View of Verona with the Castelvecchio and Ponte Scaligero Bernardo Bellotto, Italian. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
View of Verona with the Castelvecchio and Ponte Scaligero Bernardo Bellotto, Italian. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Some Veronese citizens decided to bring the rocks to the most learned scholar in the city at the time: a physician named Girolamo Fracastoro. Fracastoro looked at the fossils and came to a surprising conclusion. He immediately ruled out the possibility that Noah’s Flood could have delivered the sea creatures to Verona. Instead, Fracastoro declared that fossils had come to the city through a series of gradual changes to an immensely old Earth.

Fracastoro explained that over vast cycles, the ocean slowly moved inland and then slowly crept back out. It would flood one country as it retreated from another. Over time, great volumes of sand and debris accumulated on the sea floor, and when the ocean ebbed it left behind hills and mountains–complete with the fossils of sea creatures.

Five centuries later, it can be hard to believe that anyone in Fracostoro’s time could have such an appreciation for the great age of the Earth. It’s only in the modern age of science that we know that the Earth is indeed enormously old–over 4.6 billion years old, in fact–and that its surface has been gradually worked over that vast stretch of time. Before the rise of modern science, we assume, Europeans relied on a strict reading of the Bible to explain the history of the Earth and believed that the planet was just a few thousand years old. Today, young Earth creationists seem like vestiges left behind from that pre-modern age.

And yet there’s no doubt that Fracostoro appreciated Deep Time. He may not have understood radiometric dating, but he certainly didn’t think the world was a few thousand years old.

To fit Fracostoro into conventional narratives, historians have tried to cast him as a fluke. They acknowledge that a few early scholars believed in an ancient Earth. But they were ignored because they were too far ahead of their time. It wasn’t until the 1700s that science had matured enough for an ancient age of the Earth to be widely accepted.

That story may feel satisfying, but it doesn’t fit the facts. In a June issue of the journal Isis the Yale historian Ivano Dal Prete argues Fracostoro was very much of his time.

When Fracostoro described the gradual changes to the Earth, he didn’t claim that he was saying anything new or controversial. Instead, he relied on centuries of previous writers. In the Middle Ages, European scholars had rediscovered Aristotle, who had written that the same part of the Earth that are now dry were once wet, and vice versa. In the 1200s and 1300s, philosophers built on Aristotle’s work with more complicated explanations for the Earth’s history. “The earth has always existed as Aristotle appears to have thought,” wrote Jean Buridan in the early 1300s, “even though this may not be true according to our faith.” In the late 1400s, another writer noted that the view of Earth as undergoing gradual changes over vast stretches of time was the “most common among philosophers.”

By the early 1500s, Dal Prete writes, it wasn’t just philosophers who shared this view. So did the reading public. Earth sciences became so popular that publishers cranked out a torrent of books on the topic. Rather than scholarly Latin, these books appeared in Italian and other vernacular language. In those books, the public could be exposed to the idea of an ancient Earth.

Even cardinals jumped on the band wagon. Gasparo Contarini, a cardinal from Venice in the early 1500s, published an entire book about geology. And he did so without ever once mentioning Noah’s Flood. Instead, Contarini wrote that physical forces sculpted the planet over vast stretches of time.

Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard, by Filippino Lippi, 1480. Source:
Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard, by Filippino Lippi, 1480. Source:

You don’t have to page through old books to see just how geologically minded people in the Renaissance had become. Their paintings show us where their eyes turned when they looked at landscapes. And remarkably often, they turned to rocks. A number of the finest painters of the Renaissance incorporated exposed layers of rocks in their pictures–the fruits of careful observation. They were looking at the intricate effects of millions of years of geological change.

It’s always a mistake to impose a simple science-versus-religion structure onto the history of thought, and Dal Prete shows that geology is no exception. In 1519, for example, a writer named Tiberio Russilano got in trouble for a book called Apology against the Hooded, in which he dismissed the Biblical history of the Earth and argued that the planet was immensely old. The Inquisition burned the book, and Russilano barely escaped arrest.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that he got in trouble for his science. But the history is more complicated than that. The book was actually grab bag of all sorts of strange passages–both scientific and theological. And it was the theological material, such as Russilano’s denial that Christ was divine, that really riled up the inquisitors.

That’s not to say that religion didn’t have an effect on the history of science. By the late 1500s, Protestantism was on the rise across Europe, and the Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation. Part of that effort included putting pressure on publishers. They demanded that the Bible be read as literal history unless there was irrefutable proof for a different reading. “The world is not eternal,” declared the Jesuit priest Benito Pereira in the 1570s. “From its beginning to those days no more than five thousand six hundred years have elapsed.”

It turns out, however, that many philosophers didn’t follow Pereira example very closely. They accepted that the Earth had not existed forever, but they saw it as lasting far longer than a few thousand years. Some treated Noah’s Flood as a real geological event, but merely as the most recent of many great cataclysms. And for all the vigor of the Counter-Reformation, no one was burned at the stake for such claims.

Writers in Italy and elsewhere continued to develop ideas about the history of Earth. They investigated fossils more deeply, they thought long and hard about how layers of rock formed, and they considered how volcanoes and earthquakes shaped the planet. By the 1700s, the outlines of modern geology were emerging. But the proto-geologists of the 1700s didn’t see their work as a fundamental break from the past. Instead, they saw a seamless connection reaching back centuries.


24 thoughts on “The Old Old Earth

  1. I would like to know on what grounds Fracostoro immediately ruled out the Flood of Noah.

    An argument about the Flood making other kinds of impact or simply a preference of what Aristotle appears to have thought over what is true according to our faith?

    “The world is not eternal,” declared the Jesuit priest Benito Pereira in the 1570s. “From its beginning to those days no more than five thousand six hundred years have elapsed.”

    The traditional view. Obviously the exact time scale cannot easily be proven from evidence available visibly in nature to us now. St Thomas even went further, arguing that it is only through faith, not through reason that we know Aristotle was wrong in thinking the world eternal.

    Some treated Noah’s Flood as a real geological event, but merely as the most recent of many great cataclysms. And for all the vigor of the Counter-Reformation, no one was burned at the stake for such claims.

    The vigour of the Counter Reformation was hardly the same as that of the INquisition against Albigensians.

    An Isaac de la Peyrere had proposed a theory about pre-Adamites. Burnt at the stake? No. Forced to recant by Pope Alexander VII? Yes, very definitely.

  2. Your faith. Not “our faith”. Some of us persist in depending upon the notion that facts and science explain the natural world, just as Fracostoro did.

  3. Thank you for bringing this paper to our attention. Fascinating stuff. I wasn’t familiar with Fracostoro but great to see some perspective from this time period. What you have written here works quite well with what I have read of 17th century natural theologians especially their correspondences. Clearly, there was rising tension but this context from the 16th century helps makes sense of both their concerns but also some free exchange of ideas without the polemics the would come to characterize many 18th century works.

  4. “I would like to know on what grounds Fracostoro immediately ruled out the Flood of Noah”

    The bible record of Noah’s flood does not provide sufficient time for shellfish to have grown.

  5. I love to hear about how many people figured out ideas hundreds of years before the public accepted it. As usual the church stopped the progression of human society with the demonization of scientific breakthroughs. Sad.

  6. Not sufficient time?

    In what area? In some areas a lot of them would have been washed in from a larger area, I think particularly of Grand Canyon.

    It can hardly have been the motive of Fracostoro, since he hardly had access to shellfish fossil chalk formations that size.

  7. “I think particularly of Grand Canyon.”
    I need not ask where that location came to mind, I’m familiar with the person pushing it, and not a single utterance he has ever made is based on fact.
    Comments about scholars centuries ago stating what has become proven fact by making veiled comments about the man with a museum that treats the Flintstones as if it were a documentary is not worthy of debate.

  8. Thank you! This is very interesting. It seems a lot of what we think we know about the past (and other things) are over-simplified or just plain wrong. When I was young, it was oft-repeated that Columbus had to convince people that the world was round, not flat. Turns out Washington Irving made that part up and it got spread around as truth. Actually the problem was that Columbus had calculated the Earth was a smaller sphere than the more accurate figure the experts had.

    Some people seem to think “the Church” “stopped the progression of human society with the demonization of scientific breakthroughs” when it actually supported a lot of research and, as this article points out, only leaned on people when they got away from pure scientific research. Far more leading Protestants were burned at the stake (not to mention many more followers) were burned at the stake than the scientists (or natural philosophers) who were even told to recant an idea.

    Another common misconception may be that Darwin came up with evolution out of the blue, or made a sharp departure from Lamarck’s version. There were actually several people who proposed evolutionary ideas many years before Darwin, and Darwin rested the weight of biological change on a multi-generational version of the idea that environmental pressures and “use” could directly mold living things to fit.

    Let’s not get the idea that everyone had decided early on that the Earth was practically eternal, though. The idea of the Earth being under 6,000 years old continued to be popular for some time — Bishop Ussher didn’t try to pin down the year (he didn’t try to be more accurate than that) until the 1600s.

    If I may, I’d like to share some notes that may help give a contextual overview:
    1200s – Aquinas (Aristotle & Bible, 6 day creation, global Flood), Roger Bacon, Marco Polo

    1300s – Ockham, Wycliffe

    1300s-1400s – John Hus

    1400s – Gutenberg

    1400s-1500s – Columbus, Leonardo da Vinci, Amerigo Vespucci, Erasmus, Copernicus, Martin Luther, Zwingli, Henry VIII

    1500s – Calvin (_creatio ex nihilo_, 6,000 year old world, fixity of kinds, Noah historical, Flood global), Knox, Tycho Brahe, Mercator, Foxe’s _Book of Martyrs_

    1500s-1600s Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Bacon (6-day creation, nature a second book of revelation), Galileo, Johann Kepler (discovering the working of creation is like “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”)

    List of commentaries on Genesis shows, “To a man, there was absolutely no doubt that the Bible…was the only trustworthy record of earth’s six-thousand-year history.”

    1578 Guillaume de Salluste (1544-1590), French Huguenot, publishes _La Semaine_ — epic poem on the creation week — “World not Eternall, nor by Chance compos’d; But of meere Nothing God it Essence gave” — “possibly the most popular poem in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — was translated into eight different languages.”

    1611 King James’ Authorized version of the Bible published

    1614 _History of the World_ by Sir Walter Raleigh. “Ralegh had full confidence in the Bible (the Geneva version) as a trustworthy and reliable source.” Dated creation 5031 B.C. Flood 2242 B.C. **proposed “that the flood had been placid”** — reasoning that the precise description of the location of Eden must mean that it had been preserved.

    1620 “Francis Bacon’s _… Novum Organum Scientiarum_ (Sets forth the principles and method of science. Bacon accepted the Biblical account of the creation of the Earth in six days.)]
    {1620-1630 Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1620–1630).[21] Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan consider the latter work the first science fiction story.[22][23] It depicts a journey to the Moon and how the Earth’s motion is seen from there.”

    1624 Lord Herbert of Cherbury: _De veritate_, foundation of theory of English deism. Herbert “never rejected the Bible but he considered it to be a man-made record… disregarded the teaching of Jesus’ … resurrection…”

    1644 Descartes’ _Principia Philosophicae_ (“Cogito, ergo sum”), Roger Williams’s _Queries of Highest Consideration_ on “separation of Church and State.”

    1650-1800 “Modern Era” — “Enlightenment or Age of Reason”
    1650 James Ussher — Earth’s age = 5,994 years

    [1661 “Robert Boyle…_The Skeptical Chymist_, with definition of chemical elements”] Robert Boyle “devoted his life to the furtherance of both science and theology… one of the founders of modern-day chemistry.” “the Bible was Boyle’s constant companion” and he was encouraged by James Ussher to study biblical languages.
    1662 Book by Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, “a historical defense of the reasonableness of Christianity.” Denounced concept of eternality of matter. Six 24-hour day creation. (But a local Flood — only universal to mankind — possibly most of Asia…) “Yet he was in total agreement with the majority of the historians of the 17th century that this biblical catastrophe occurred some 1656 years after the creation of Adam.”
    1662 Charles II “granted a royal charter to the Royal Society of London.” “As a group, they believed that God was the omnipotent Creator and that they, through their scientific endeavors, could reveal to the world the grandeur and the beauty of His creation.”
    [1663 “Robert Boyle: _Concerning the Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy_.”]

    1681 Jacques Bossuet’s _Discourse on Universal History_ – “biblically based… history was portrayed from a divine perspective.” Earth created in 4004 B.C.

    1687 _Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy_ by Isaac Newton [(_Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica_)]

    1695 Books by John Locke [“John Locke: _The Reasonableness of Christianity_.”] and John Toland, controversial, “committed…to the importance of reason within the Christian faith. But…edging closer…toward…atheism.” _Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth_ by Dr. John Woodward(1655-1728) “based on a complete confidence in the trustworthiness and historicity of the Bible.” Global Flood “accounted for the stratification of the earth.” “Genesis…the most plausible of scientific hypotheses concerning marine fossils, differing species of trees and the American people.”

    1728 Posthumous work of Newton’s: Divine creation of the world in 3999 B.C. (5,626 years)

    1738 “John Wesley’s evangelical conversion; George Whitefield follows him to Georgia as ‘Leader of the Great Awakening.

    1746 “Denis Diderot… _Pensees philosophiques_” deist turned atheist, organizer and chief editor of _Encyclopedia_. Intended to raise Reason “to a cult status.” Believed “The universe was self-originating and self-perpetuating…mankind was nothing more than a mechanism…of natural processes.”

    1748 Benoit de Maillet — Earth’s age = 2×10^9 (2 billion)years (book published 10 years posthumously, although some copies had circulated earlier) “our universe arose out of a vortex… swirling ashes, water and dust from a sun that had just burned up.” Based on the supposed rate of lowering of the ocean water level, concluded the Earth was covered in water 2 million years ago. “First modern uniformitarian.” saw life as an eternal potential of nature, gradually changing from marine plants to human beings. Even Voltaire considered it “scandalous and bizarre… dangerous.” de Maillet attempted to harmonize it with Scripture by describing the six days as “only a metaphorical expression.”

    1770 D’Holbach’s _The System of Nature_ “a highly-charged attack on supernaturalism…’the Bible of Atheism'” Even Voltaire reacted against it.

    1774 Comte de Buffon — Earth’s age = 75,000 years

    1789-1799 the French Revolution (1793-1794 Reign of Terror)

    1793-1795 Thomas Paine’s _Age of Reason_. “a scathing attack on the Bible” — much impact in England and America. Promoted deism — “Paine believed that only in the study of nature or natural religion could one find the true and trustworthy understanding of God.”
    [1794 Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather): _Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life_. (Proposed evolutionary history of life)]
    1795 James Hutton’s _The Theory of the Earth_ — A deist ancient-Earth creationist, believed in “omnipotent God” but “gave no credence to the Scriptures…Noachic Flood.” Theory of “uniformitarianism…the basis of modern gology.” “The concept of a worldwide catastrophe was discarded, not because it was disproven, but because it did not fit the new naturalistic paradigm.”

    (based on notes from _The Faces of Origins: A Historical Survey of the Underlying Assumptions from the Early Church to Postmodernism_ by David Herbert, M.A., M. Div., Ed. D.; D & I Herbert Publishing, London, Ontario, 2004, and [in brackets] _The Timetables of Histo ry_ (The New Third Revised Edition), by Bernard Grun,)

  9. The article does demonstrate that some people would be super intelligent wherever and whenever they might have lived and that the intelligence of the mass of humanity has not improved with time.

  10. @ Brian Foulkrod, I think you mean either Ken Ham or Kent Hovind.

    Either way you are wrong, I have been pushing this myself for quite a while and I have had to look into the claims that ALL TIME PERIODS are represented in Grand Canyon.

    They are not. Apart from very little Palaeocene or Miocene just “on top” (on top as on top or sideways on top?) the huge thickness of the layers, pretty unique on Earth, covers Palaeozoic / Pre-Cambrian marine fauna. Usually precisely shell fish.

    My point, which I hope some other people than you get, was that Fracostoro was NOT dealing with the thickness of shell fish layers that Grand Canyon represent.

  11. @David Bump:

    “1681 Jacques Bossuet’s _Discourse on Universal History_ – “biblically based… history was portrayed from a divine perspective.” Earth created in 4004 B.C.”

    How Anglican of him to agree with Ussher! Well, he was conciliatory with Anglicans.

    Normally the Roman Martyrology follows St Jerome. Christ born 5199 Anno Mundi. Or 2957 Anno Diluvii.

    Calvin did not change that except by preferring Masoretic text over Septuagint for exactitude of facts.

  12. @ gina rex:

    I definitely concur the average intelligence has not improved over time.

    As to some people being super intelligent whenever or whereever they live … who do you mean? Me for being still Creationist in a world gone mad with old earthism or someone else?

  13. @ author of article:

    “Perhaps it was the fact that crabs and seashells live in the ocean, which was sixty miles from the city.”

    You mean the sea, right? The Mediterranean Sea was perhaps sixty miles from Verona, but the Atlantic Ocean or Indian Ocean quite a bit further away.

    See = Lake
    Meer = Sea
    Ozean = Ocean.

  14. If memory serves, one reason why the flood of Noah was rejected was the shelled animals were not on the mountains but rather _in_ them.

  15. OK, Fracostoro was not a super genius about the mechanics of sedimentation.

    Thanks for settling that!

  16. Hans wrote, “I have had to look into the claims that ALL TIME PERIODS are represented in Grand Canyon.” Whoever said that is no scientist — perhaps you were listening to a “straw man” caricature of geological knowledge. The Grand Canyon contains striking examples of the Great Unconformity, where 250,000,000 to 1,200,000,000 years are missing from the geological record.


  17. “The Grand Canyon contains striking examples of the Great Unconformity, where 250,000,000 to 1,200,000,000 years are missing from the geological record.”

    If you believe they are years, yes.

    I believe they are biotopes. And most biotopes would be missing in most places at any time.

  18. When I visited Verona a few years ago, in addition to all the culturel treasures, I was struck by the huge ammonites in the paving stones. Some were two feet across.

  19. I am fascinated by this article, but I am more fascinated in the fact that people today still insist upon a discredited “Biblical” timeline, supported through willful ignorance and “cherry picking” of (often quote-mined) data points, rather than observable reality.

  20. The funniest part about anyone defending the Noah myth, is that Christianity straight up stole the story from Mesopotamian civilizations, which existed outside of the young earth time frame.

    1. Well, Toad, that’s the theory, because we have older copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh than anything written in Hebrew, but then, look up “ghost lineages” and you might see how just because we have older examples of one thing, that doesn’t mean that something else actually came before it.

  21. This view of an ancient earth existed amongst scientists in central Asia (modern Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, etc) in the 9th and 10th centuries. This was well before western Europeans rediscovered Aristotle, as it was the Islamic Golden Age that eventually allowed the transmitted Aristotle back to western Europe via southern Spain.

    Al-Biruni, an astronomer and polymath, wrote about the cycles of deep time at the end of the 10th century, taking his cue from Aristotle, but taking it a step further by doing scientific investigation into the physical processes. He wrote about how sedimentation works amongst other things.

    A fascinating book on this is “Lost Enlightenment” by S. Fredrick Starr. It came out last year, and focuses on the Persian-speaking scientists of central Asia who were big admirers of the Greek philosophers and mathematicians, whose works they had via translations into Arabic from Syriac (Nestorian) Christians that were kicked out of the Roman Empire and settled in the middle east and central Asia.

    Arabic was the lingua franca of this period, which allowed wide distribution of Greek translations and original works in Arabic all the way to Spain. Much of western medicine and mathematics was based on knowledge either transmitted, commented on, or developed by philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and physicians in the Islamic world from this period. Fascinating stuff.

    Unfortunately little of the original work of these scientists is translated from Arabic into any western languages, so the true breadth is not yet known. Many future history of science PhD theses reside in this topic I suspect.

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